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Amid federal rollbacks, NYS must act to protect streams, wetlands & wildlife

Dirty Water Rule graphic - Earth Justice

In the wake of environmental malfeasance by the Trump administration, New York has the opportunity and the responsibility to take action to protect our waterways. (Photo: Earthjustice)
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The Hudson River’s tributaries and freshwater wetlands across the state of New York are at risk of losing much of their federal protections and falling into an untenable regulatory gap in New York State protections. On the Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, the Trump administration continues its all out assault on environmental protections, including eviscerating Clean Water Act protections that have been in place for nearly fifty years. 

The relentless attacks on the Clean Water Act require immediate action by Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York State legislative leaders, and our federal congressional delegation. Although COVID-19 has disrupted the state legislative session, remote voting procedures will enable legislators to send legislation to protect streams and wetlands to Governor Cuomo’s desk. 

How the Trump administration endangers clean water & your health

In the wake of environmental malfeasance by the Trump administration, New York has the opportunity and the responsibility to take action to protect our waterways. (Photo: Earthjustice)

On April 21, the Trump Administration published the final version of the Navigable Waters Protection Rule set to take effect on June 22. This new rule narrows the definition of the “waters of the United States,” which determines which waters the federal government is authorized to protect pursuant to the Clean Water Act. Under one analysis, the rule removes protections for more than half of the nation’s wetlands and one-fifth of streams. Allowing uncontrolled development and discharges of toxic pollution into water bodies which will contaminate drinking water supplies, fisheries, recreational waters, and harm people, wildlife and animals exposed to this pollution. The new rule is unprecedented, ignores established science, and strips Clean Water Act protection from broad categories of waters and wetlands, jeopardizing the water we drink, swim, and fish in.  

Protecting New York’s streams 

The Stream Protection Act A.8449/S.5612A passed the NY Assembly earlier this year and now sits idle on the Senate floor. If the Senate does not act on the legislation before the end of session, local streams falling into the gap between state and federal oversight will be at risk of harm. We thank the Assembly for their action this year and are urging the Senate to take up this legislation without delay. 

This bill would add 41,000 miles of class C streams, nearly half of New York’s total stream miles, to the protected class of streams within the DEC’s Protections of Waters Program. Class C streams include many of the stream types targeted by the Trump administration’s new rule, including seasonal or precipitation-fed streams. These seasonal streams which are channels that flow for hours or days following rainfall and precipitation-fed streams which are streams that cease flowing for weeks or months each year will lose protections under the federal rollback. Class C streams do not require a state permit to alter the stream bank or disturb the stream bottom, which impacts the health of the stream and wildlife dependent on clean water. The passage of the Stream Protection Act would afford protection to this class of streams in the absence of federal protection.

According to an analysis of the new rule by Trout Unlimited, there is about one mile of an ephemeral stream for every mapped stream mile in New York State – therefore, excluding ephemeral, intermittent streams and smaller streams that are not connected to regulated water, 2020bodies, will result in roughly 50 percent of streams losing protection. In addition, over half of New Yorkers (11.2 million) are dependent on public water systems which are supplied by water from small unprotected streams. 

The water supply for the City of Peekskill is Peekskill Hollow Brook, supplemented by Wiccopee Reservoir. The watershed is pictured at right, with streams outlined in shades of pink. Buchanan and Cortlandt use the Peekskill system as a backup. In total, 58,900 people in Peekskill, Buchanan and Cortlandt rely on this supply. A Town of Putnam Valley Natural Resources Inventory (2018), and an analysis by Riverkeeper using its Drinking Water Source Protection Scorecard (2019) have identified several stream segments that are currently Class C. These stream segments appear in light pink on the map. These streams cannot be protected by Peekskill, because they lie outside city limits.

Protecting New York’s Freshwater Wetlands

A second priority is increasing wetland protections, particularly for New York’s smaller wetlands. With more than one-half of the nation’s wetlands losing protections, protecting our state wetlands is critically important. New York only extends protections to wetlands 12.4 acres or larger that appear on DEC published maps through a kafkaesque bureaucratic process. This mapping amendment process has allowed 50,000 acres of large wetlands to languish on draft maps, including thousands of acres in the Wallkill River watershed from receiving the protection they deserve (more on this in a future webinar). Only 6 percent of the total freshwater wetlands in New York meet these criteria and receive protections, while the remaining 94% of the state’s wetlands previously received oversight by the Clean Water Act and permitted through the Army Corps of Engineers, but the new rollbacks put that oversight in jeopardy.. 

The Trump Administration’s new rule will create a regulatory gap where many of New York’s smaller wetlands, that had been permitted through a bare-bones U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nationwide Permit, will no longer receive those minimal protections. Unless New York steps up, many wetlands are fair game for development.

New protections for wetlands proposed by Governor Cuomo almost made it to the finish line as a standalone policy in the 2020 NYS budget, but unfortunately fell out amid negotiations. It is imperative that the legislature send increased protections for freshwater wetlands to Governor Cuomo’s desk without delay. Riverkeeper supports the passage of the Wetlands Protection Act A.3658/S.7366 sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Englebright and Senator Pete Harckman which increase the protection of smaller wetlands and remove the red tape preventing the protection of larger wetlands left in regulatory limbo.

Take Action

Now is the time to demonstrate that New York won’t let federal irresponsibility harm our wildlife and clean water, and now is the time to build our natural defenses against the future effects of climate change.

Urge your New York State representatives to protect streams and wetlands here

Contact your Member of Congress here and ask them to not let the EPA weaken the Clean Water Act. 

Join us for a legislative briefing on April 27th at 5pm. Register for the webinar here.

Tell Gov. Hochul to block invasive species at the Erie and Champlain canals
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